Would You Like to Ride in My Beautiful, My Beautiful UFO?

Hundreds of mysterious lights glide across the night sky. Far below, the wary eyes of Americans, trained for suspicion, track the objects. A 911 call is made. A terrorist attack? More likely, an alien invasion. What else could it possibly be? A more mundane explanation is unavailable, so the incomprehensible becomes likely.

Take, for instance, the recent reaction in Greenwich, CT:
It wasn't a bird, a plane or Superman, but residents of downtown Greenwich thought a myriad of lights in the sky just may have been an unidentified flying object passing overhead Saturday night.

The bright, moving lights in the sky caused several people to call police to report a possible UFO sighting. Some reports indicated there had been 30 to 40 individual lights glowing in the night sky.
"These were being propelled," said Urda. "If it was an air current, the balloons would have been very lethargically moving along."

Urda said the "intense" orange lights were traveling in pairs, and sometimes threesomes. Urda estimates he saw 30 to 40 go by.

"They kind of disappeared into the clouds all at the same spot," said Urda. "I was standing there in total amazement."
Similar sightings were reported in Norwich, UK:
As previously reported, Sarah Browne, who first contacted the paper after spotting the light, described the light as being “silent” with no aircraft noise, smoke or trail.

Trudy Gray, who lives near Aylsham, said she had seen a similar light the Tuesday before at about the same time. She said: “It was a continuous orange light, quite high up, going in straight line with no sound, no nothing.”
And in Southport, UK
Emergency services raced to Wyke Cop on Sunday night after residents reported a ball of fire falling from the sky.

Fearing the plummeting fireball was a light aircraft or microlight, search and rescue teams patrolled the area whilst ambulances stood by, though nothing was found.
And in Taunton, UK (Somerset)
And Jane Merchant from Taunton said she was relieved after reading other people's reports of a UFO sighting and claims she saw a similar flickering light “moving briskly and quietly across the sky”.

“Every time I've mentioned my experience no one's taken me seriously,” she added.
Invariably, these UFOs are described as silent, reddish-orangish glowing lights moving briskly - sometimes in a straight line, sometimes erratically. They are reported as moving too slow for a plane, too quiet for a helicopter, yet too fast for a balloon or an oriental sky lantern.

Therein lies the rub. The witnesses are relying on personal experience to intuit just exactly how fast a sky lantern should be moving. Also, not knowing the size, altitude, or distance of the lantern makes determination of velocity nearly impossible. Even an estimate can be off by an order of magnitude. Living at sea level gives you know perspective of actual wind speed at 1000 meters, the typical height most lanterns achieve. Wind speeds at this altitude depends on local topology (flat, hills, mountains) as well as whether or not you live near large bodies of water. Of course, a large factor in wind speed at altitude depends on nearby low and high pressure systems. In general, though, you can expect wind speeds (and thusly, lantern speeds) to range from 0 - 40 mph at 1000 meters.

The so-called UFOs are often reported as moving in unison, perhaps one right after the other. That, of course, is not so hard to explain if you assume the lanterns are being released from the same back yard and are therefore subject to the same air currents. However, one commenter argued that this was contrary to his understanding of sky lanterns:
I was a guest at Mr Aultons BBQ and i do not believe these balls of fire were Chinese Lanterns. If they were, how can it be explained that they were 4 minutes apart and all followed the same course and trajectory. (link)
While these sequence of lights is easily explainable, it's apparently not so easily understandable by certain people.

And therein lies the other rub. Personal experience or belief is no substitute for the physics behind the observations. That is, for rational explanations to be understandable, there must be some critical thinking skills and some basic knowledge of science involved. It is perhaps this requirement from the skeptics that leads others to believe the skeptics to be 'smug'. So, perhaps you are being smug when you expect a certain level of intelligence from your listener. You find yourself having to 'talk down' to their level of knowledge which, unless you're a fine actor, comes across as patronizing and, well, smug.

The pattern of these 'UFOs' is explainable. Sky lanterns can be strung together or released into the same wind currents intermittently. They are quiet. They are bright. They can be rather large. They can move unexpectedly fast. They can disappear immediately as they move behind an unseen cloud at night. They can even fall to earth as a ball of fire. In fact, one company has gone so far as to sell their sky lanterns as 'UFO Balloons'! While they dismiss the authenticity of extraterrestrials, they do capitalize on the scary physics at work:
A UFO Balloon that takes off because of the hot air inside, that’s some kind of a mystery, that’s maybe a bit frightening and certainly, it’s fascinating. It has nothing to do with the extra-terrestrial.
While sky lanterns have the potential of posing a fire hazard, there is no link with sky lanterns killing farm animals. Thus, the following headline comes as no surprise: Sky lanterns could kill farm animals in Gloucestershire.

In the following video, you can see hundreds...maybe thousands...of 'UFOs' being launched - or perhaps they are escaping their human captors. Midway through the video, we see the earthlings attack with rocket propelled explosives although only one UFO is brought down in flames.

Greenwich, CT link
Norwich, UK link
Southport, UK link
Make your own UFO

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